View to a Former War Zone
Beit Meri, Lebanon
Riyad, my well-traveled and warmhearted 41-year-old CouchSurfing host, picked me up in Beirut and whisked me off to his home in Biet Meri (a town overlooking the capital, about 10 miles from the city). Some 2,600 feet above the sea, the town has been a summer mountain resort since the times of the Romans, and offers up a rather some rather spectacular views of the Beirut peninsula and part of Lebanon's Mediterranean coast.
Biet Meri is a Christian town. There's a historic Maronite Monastery of Saint John the Baptist (built in 1750), as well as plenty of statuettes of the Virgin Mary outside of homes and businesses. You can't hear a Muslim call to prayer here.
I'm learning heaps about the 15-year civil war that ravaged the country (and decimated the capital) until 1990, and how the country is still divided along religious lines—not just geographically (north belonging to the Christians, south to the Muslims), but purposefully within the government itself.
Although no official census has been taken since 1932, at the time of Lebanon's independence in the 1940s, there were more Christians than Muslims. In the following years, many Muslims immigrated to Lebanon and had a higher birthrate than the Christians; as a result, Muslims became the majority group in Lebanon.
Today, an estimated 60 percent of the 3.9 million Lebanese are Muslim, while most of the remaining 40 percent are Christian. Every person's religion is encoded on a required, government-issued identification card. The government recognizes 18 distinct religious sects: 5 Muslim (Shia, Sunni, Druze, Ismailite, and Alawite), 11 Christian (4 Orthodox, 6 Catholic, Protestant), Judaism, and Copt.